Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City in Phoenix, Arizona, is in some ways, not unlike is currently hosting. In our area, the eastside of Seattle, Tent City is a homeless encampment that is hosted for three months at a time on the properties of churches and synagogues. Both communities are populated by persons who are homeless. Many of those in TC4 have been failed by our social service systems. All of the residents of Arpaio’s tent city have been failed by our immigration system. But unlike the residents of TC4, the folks in Arpaio’s Tent City are not there by choice. They are immigration detainees being held as criminals for civil offenses, in conditions that would not meet federal corrections standards. They are crowded into tents in the hottest parts of the desert climate’s afternoons with no air conditioning. Sometimes they do not have access to water for hours at a time in the intense heat. They have no heat in the winter.
I ran into a colleague one evening prior to the witness event. She happens to be a UUA Trustee as well as a parish minister. I asked her how this Justice G.A. was for her. She was wondering if our presence really was going to make a difference or have an impact. I related a story to her from my experiences years ago in the United Church of Christ when I had taken a group of youth to work in two remote villages in the Ecuadoran Andes.
Having done a lot of these trips in the past, I was all too aware that it was usually those of us on the trips who were transformed perhaps more than any of those whom we had set out “to help.” But what I learned on this particular trip to Ecuador is that it is not about the work done, the money raised or material goods given. It is about the relationships that are built. It is about the borders of culture, economic status, religion, and language that are crossed. It is about mutuality and partnership. It is not about acting on behalf of but working alongside of the marginalized and unseen.
The Argentinian missionary whom we teamed up with in these villages called us “angels from heaven.” What she meant was that prior to our arrival, no one seemed to know about or care about the people in these villages. Because we came, they were seen, acknowledged, connected somehow, no longer invisible or unseen. We saw one another. We developed relationships in spite of all the barriers and borders. We became etched in one another’s hearts. When we left, we carried their stories with us and introduced these forgotten and marginalized persons to our home congregation by telling their stories. By relating what our opened eyes had shown us, what our opened ears had heard.
If to be religious is to be connected- deeply connected- on so many levels, to all of life, Spirit, and Mystery, then all of us who were a part of the Justice G.A. in Phoenix this year, succeeded. Because of the workshops, because of the witness events, our eyes were opened. We “saw” those who are unseen in this country and in the borderlands. The learnings of the workshops, worship, and witness helped dissolve many of the internal borders that keep us from connecting from one another. The knowledge gained led to an intimate knowing that allowed us to befriend the other, the stranger. Our presence ensured that the invisible were made visible. The voices and songs of the speakers and musicians at the candle light vigil at Arpaio’s Tent City on Saturday night carried and were heard by the residents- even under “lock down” conditions.
Were there and will there be reprisals for those in Arpaio’s Tent City? Yes. But for those who spoke to the UUA’s delegation who toured the camp, the desire to speak their truth won out over their fear: they wanted their stories told and heard. Now it is our responsibility not only to carry these brothers and sisters in our hearts but to repeat their stories. To our congregations and to whomever else will listen.
We must make the invisible visible. For we are a Big Faith with No Borders.
Rev. Lois E. Van Leer
Woodinville UU Church